Nov 242015
 

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We are trapped. Once again, we find ourselves wedged between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the European far right and of Republican neocons across the Atlantic. Every war has its mongers who profit from its sorrows, rubble and spilt blood. So too does terrorism. Along with its victims and perpetrators, it has its merchants who capitalize on its horrors, chaos and climates of fear and tension. To these, every terrorist bombing and shooting is a golden opportunity to revive arrogant racist notions in a new Islamophobic format, thus enabling them to penetrate further into the mainstream, gaining new territory and more votes. The target is no longer “Africans”, “Asians”, “blacks”, or “browns”, but “Muslims”, “Arabs”, “Middle Easterners”, or “Syrians”. Against these, all limits may be dispensed with, the unspeakable may be spoken, the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Before the dust had settled in Paris, the old symphony of “we” and “they” reverberated once more. “Our” enlightened values, we were again told, were locked in existential struggle against “their” barbaric religion and savage culture. “They” here, of course, does not refer to extreme fanatical violent groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, or Isis, but to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Thus suddenly, ordinary working men and women going about their daily lives in Indonesia or Malaysia, Bangladesh or Senegal, find themselves cast as the enemy vying to destroy “our” western civilization, “our” sublime ideals and way of life.

What is worrying is that this rhetoric, which in Europe is more characteristic of the far right, is increasingly endorsed by mainstream Republicans in the US. It is ironic that, while Francois Hollande had declared in his address to the French Senate and National Assembly after the Paris attacks that “We’re not engaged in a war of civilizations, because the assassins do not represent any”, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the globe, US Republicans furiously insisted on the reverse.

The theme of civilizational clash between the West and Islam has been a favorite in the Republican debates. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator and Republican presidential hopeful, went as far as to draw analogies between Islam and Nazism as he angrily reacted to Hillary Clinton’s statement that she did not believe the United States was at war with Islam. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves”, he suggested. “This is a clash of civilizations. For they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values.”

And just like the far-right in Europe, Republicans have swiftly moved to raise the question of Syrian refugees’ settlement in connection with the Paris attacks. While Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National demanded an “immediate halt” to the intake of Syrian refugees into France, Republicans lined up to urge a ban on any “middle Eastern” migrants in the US. A succession of governors, mostly Republicans, announced that they would not allow any Syrian applicants to be placed in their states, vowing to block the government’s plans to resettle a mere 10.000 of those fleeing the war in Syrian into the US.

Jeb Bush went further, demanding that the US only accept those applicants proven to be Christian, after thorough vetting and checks to ensure that they are indeed Christian. “We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered” he declared. Bush is not alone in calling for a discriminatory approach to the Syrian refugee question. The position has been endorsed by a number of senior Republicans such as Ted Cruz. “If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted”, he objected, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” “on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution.. we should be providing safe haven to them”.

That such bigoted, exclusionist language could be used by mainstream politicians in the 21st century is scandalous. Those fleeing brutality, death and destruction are no longer to be seen as human victims who deserve shelter and safety, but as Christians and Muslims, good victims and bad victims. As if it weren’t enough for Syrians to lose everything, their possessions, homes and loved ones, this sick narrative would have them stripped of their victimhood too.

Listening to Republicans chastise Obama and his administration over its Middle East strategy, one gets the impression that we are still in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is as if the US had never invaded Iraq, had never been defeated there and forced to withdraw in a hurry, exhausted and humiliated. They seem unaware of the chaos and destruction their absurd wars had unleashed on the whole region and the great damage they had caused to the United States itself. One of modern history’s greatest ironies is that no one has done more to dissipate the neoconservative dream of American world supremacy and bury the New American Century Project than the former Republican neocon administration itself.

What makes the Republicans’ discourse on Islam and the Muslim world dangerous is that it is disseminated through a wide and powerful network of media outlets and rightwing think tanks then consumed by a public with no direct contact or firsthand knowledge of the Muslim world. What gets generally confined to the shadowy margins of the far right in Europe, has in the United States, with its geographic remoteness from the Muslim hemisphere, lack of familiarity with Islam and the American tradition of religious based idealism, the potential of dominating mainstream public opinion of Islam and Muslims.

The truth is that cultures, civilizations and lifestyles do not clash. It is humans who clash, with their interests, ambitions, illusions and fantasies. Instead of the twisted binary logic of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, terrorism should render us more keenly aware of the interconnectedness of our world, of our shared existence and the dangers that threaten us all. Terrorists do not ask for their victims IDs before mutilating their bodies in Paris, Beirut, or Tunis. The solution to the insane chaos into which we have been dragged since 9/11 begins with an active rejection of the ugly dualisms of “us” and “them”, of believers vs infidels and of Westerners/Europeans vs the Muslim other.

Nov 102015
 

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A funereal atmosphere descended over western capitals with the announcement of Turkey’s parliamentary elections’ results, widely described in European and American media as a “shock” and a “black day for Turkey.” The picture painted appeared very bleak, as a stream of reports, editorials and op-eds by opposition figures warned of a “return to autocracy and despotism” and declared the outcome as a threat to the “survival of democracy” in the country.

Absent in such doom and gloom analyses was the fact that Erdogan had accepted last June’s elections’ results, which had depleted his party’s parliament representation, and had sought to form a national unity government. As such proposals were firmly rejected by the opposition, he proceeded to call for early elections in conformity with the Turkish constitution.

Neither do those heaping wrath and scorn on the new “Ottoman Sultan” note that the Turkish president is surrounded by a ring of half and full-fledged despots from every side, in Jordan and the Gulf kingdoms, as in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a little further away in the same neighbourhood, reigns a military general, who, only two years ago, had seized power through a blood-soaked coup after kidnapping the country’s democratically elected president and throwing him in jail. His tanks crushed the will of the people along with the skulls and bodies of hundreds of peaceful protesters, young and old, male and female, in one of the worst atrocities in contemporary history.

Yet this very same ruler, who presides over one of the most backward tyrannical regimes on the planet, is greeted with open arms in western capitals, in Paris as in Berlin. Today, he is being hosted by David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

The message sent to the people of the region is loud and clear: either a made to fit democracy tailored to our needs and likes, or a dictator, odious though he may be. We will block our noses and shake the vulgar thug’s hand. We will call on our band of hired apologists: “experts,” “commentators” and “analysts” to concoct a set of justifications and excuses for his nauseating conduct, from mythical economic development and reform to political shrewdness, and if all else fails, reach for the Kessinger-Albright dictionary and throw in some “political realism”.

Ironically, while over 85% of eligible voters had participated in the Turkish elections, roughly the same percentage of Egyptians had chosen to collectively abstain from taking part in the recent shambolic Egyptian parliamentary polls. Thus they had denied the Field Marshal and his backers in Washington and London the fig leaf much needed to cover his dictatorial rule.

While Erdogan is vilified and chastised, the red carpet is rolled for Sisi. Yet one had placed his country on the route to democracy after five military coups and decades of absolutist army rule, while the other had put a brutal stop to his nation’s nascent democratic experiment.

Implicit in coverage of the Turkish elections is the assumption that those who had voted for the AK Party are impulsive irrational mobs easily duped by Erdogan’s “fear mongering” and “nationalist propaganda”. He has, we were repeatedly told, stirred their phobia of economic instability and insecurity. It is as though Turks had no right to fear for their economic interests or their security, with crises raging on their frontiers immediate and indirect, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya, while they host over two million Syrian refugees in their midst, with Europe and the U.S. unwilling to accept even a quarter of that number.

The millions who have taken part in the polls have made conscious informed choices, casting their vote for those whom they believe best represent their interests and respond to their legitimate fears (as voters do in every democracy around the world).

Here, as in much reporting and commentary on the Middle East, most western reporters and analysts prove unable to go beyond the boundaries of dominant narratives, or cross over ideological and cultural obstacles to grasp the reality on the ground and make sense of the actions of ordinary men and women or their motivations. They are displaying symptoms of what may be described as euro-centrism, egocentrism, or Orientalism. The external observer of colonial times, the missionary, traveller, or colonial functionary, has taken new contemporary forms: the expert, commentator, or correspondent dispatched from the old metropolis to the Empire’s peripheries. But the structure of the discourse and its content remain largely unchanged and their coded messages are constantly reproduced in new forms.

Very few in the region still take the west’s democracy rhetoric seriously. After invading and demolishing Iraq armed with promises of democratisation and emancipation, it installed a succession of sectarian despots. Instead of the sweet smell of freedom, Baghdad reeked of the stench of death and the smoke of civil war and terrorism. And no longer does Obama sing the praises of the sublime January Revolution, or fervently wish he were a rebel on Tahrir Square. The revolutionaries are rotting away in medieval dungeons while their jailor is entertained around western capitals. And instead of pointing the finger to the real tyrants up and down the Middle East and holding them to account, it is the region’s only democratically elected president (with the exception of Tunisia in North Africa) who is singled out for criticism and demonisation.

So, a small word of advice to western politicians and army of commentators and “experts”: trust me, when it comes to democracy in the region, silence is best.